Chris, Wendy, Benjamin and Thomas

The Blakeman family

Chris and I met as teenagers in 1983 and have been together ever since, in 1993 we married and in 1996 we moved to France. The move wasn’t hard. Although originally from Cheshire, we moved south in ’91 (Tunbridge Wells) and Chris was commuting often to London, we both worked weekends and evenings and long hours; so when the opportunity to move to France came along we jumped at it. Two children and 20 years later we are still loving it here .

Chris and Wendy Blakeman

Then

Chris and Wendy Blakeman

Now

20 years in France

After many years of holidaying in this area, staying in my parents holiday home, we finally moved here . We havn’t looked back since. After a number of years renovating stone barns into family gites, learning how to look after our guests and drinking many glasses of wine with them, we now feel very confident in our ability to offer just what young families like our own really need from a holiday here in France.

We have not, however, become complacent. We are constantly thinking of new ideas to add to the enjoyment, every year we update, replace, renew and re- paint as well as add. Our cottages today are very different from what they were when we first started out. In 1996, the most common question was ‘is there an iron and a tea pot’. Times are different and expectations are higher. (wifi, hot tub)

For more about how we came to be here and our last 20 years…..

Benjamin and Thomas

Benjamin (born March 2003) and Thomas (born August 2005) are our two boys and they love the summer when they have new playmates every week and although they are now getting a bit older than the average child, they are still great with the little ones – having grown up is such a social environment.  

We love parenthood especially in such a beautiful rural environment where the boys are free to run around in great open spaces. They are now both at the local secondary school in Saint Jean d’Angely , which they enjoy and they are both of course as fluent in French as all their French school friends but are learning German and Spanish too. They both play  badminton and volleyball, swim like fish, love scuba diving and Thomas enjoys Aikido and cooking too.

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Learn about wine and…

Over the years we have developed the wine theme to our guests stay. This sets us apart from everyone else. Chris worked all his adult life in the wine industry, selling, buying and teaching wine, its also a passionate hobby. Our wine tastings, taste du terroir evenings and family vine walks add to the enjoyment of the parents holiday and are extremely popular, but its not compulsory of course ! Chris will happily chat all you like about wine in general, as long as you offer him a glass whilst hes doing it !  In fact he’ll chat about anything with a glass in his hand ! (religion, politics and Brexit are particular favourites – anything contentious, he always has an opinion !!)

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Wendy and Chris

In the winter time I concentrate on being a Mum, taking the children to all their activities, participating in local events (member of the parents association and also ran an English workshop at the primary school) plus running the office side of the business – updating the web site, taking bookings, social media and dealing with all the French bureacracy ! and then in my spare time, help Chris with building projects (I learnt how to do plumbing and electrics when we first moved here)

Chris concentrates on improving and expanding our business structurally, by renewing and repairing. We are also in the middle of building a whole new house
to let out on a long term basis, it will be our second and has an extension to our own house to finish too.

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Family friendly

Wendy has become a registered child minder here in France, so now Wendy can look after you children during the day to give you a break and some time to relax even more . You can rest assured in the knowledge that you also have a capable babysitter
on hand so you can enjoy a night out too.

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Since having our own children, the needs of young families on holiday were made even more evident to us. We have always been a family location but we now specifically cater to young families where we not only provide  pleasant self catering  accommodation but we can provide all the things required by a family with young children, from cots to steam sterilisers; baby bath to hand blenders; saving you room in the car and making your holiday run more smoothly.

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Entertaining children is a constant job; by providing toys, slides, swings and of course our pirate ship, trampoline, teddy bear picnics, pottery and T-shirt painting, scuba diving and other family activities such as the weekly barbecue and family vine walks an all in a safe environment where there are other English speaking children to play with too – your children are happy all day and I pretty much guarantee you’ll have the time to finish at least one book whilst staying with us !

Read about what our families think on Trip advisor……

 

We do go on holiday…

Just not in summer ! We have to take advantage of the winter period to take our own holiday and try to take a weeks skiing break plus a trip maybe to the Uk or somewhere else in France in the October half term or Easter. Occasionally we manage a much longer trip as we adore travelling. We did a lot before the children (Mexico, Guatemala, Egypt, Thailand, Australia ) and even when they were little but now we are restricted to school holidays it’s less often. We have been to New Zealand though which was amazing, Florida and Italy.

Climbing Fox glacier in South Island New Zealand

Climbing Fox glacier in South Island New Zealand

Eating Out

Chris and I love our food and wine and love to cook but also to eat out when we can. When the children came along we wern’t going to let that stop us. It takes hard work and commitment to take a 2 year old to a great restaurant but we persevered (taking it in turns to eat while the other entertained them, taking them out when they had a tantrum etc) For many years now the boys have LOVED eating out.  When the pennies allow and the occasion demands, we will happily take them to a Michelin starred restaurant – they love to try new foods, enjoy dressing up in their shirts, ties and aftershave and are a joy to converse with over a delicious meal.

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Your family holiday with us

It really is important to us that our guests enjoy their stay with us. Ask us as many questions as you can, we will be honest. We really do want everyone to have an amazing holiday and will go above and beyond to make sure that happens. If you are after crystal glasses and Louis 14th furniture you are on the wrong web site ! Our cottages are comfortably furnished, clean and well equipped but with the needs and comfort of young families in mind so you can relax. We treat everyone as friends, we are relaxed and informal and very approachable but not intrusive. We hope this has given you a little more insight into the Blakeman family and look forward to welcoming you to us in France soon.

For details on all our properties – both family orientated or stand alone villas take a look at our web site here….

Content by Wendy Blakeman

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Nouvelle – Aquitaine

On the 1st January this year our new region was born. The Poitou- Charentes is officially no more and our departement of the Charente Maritime now forms part of this new region of France baptised ‘ Nouvelle- Aquitaine’ at the end of June this year.

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22 to 13

In November 2014 it was passed by the National Assembly of France that the 22 administrative regions of France would be reduced to just 13. There had been much disagreement namely the Alsace refusing to be joined with Lorraine and Champagne – Ardennes but this was ignored of course and Francois Hollands ‘reform’ of France began.

Eleanor of Aquitaine

Aquitaine is one of the better known regions of France and historically is very important. Most know it from Eleanor of Aquitaine who married Louis VII of France causing the area to become part of France . Until then it had been a Duchy and the Duke of Aquitaine title was generally held by various counts of Poitiers. On the annulment of her marriage to Louis, her second husband became Henry II in 1154 and so became an English possesion and remained so until the end of the hundred years war in 1453 when it returned to France.

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Aquitaine existed long before Eleanor made it famous. There are traces of human settlement by prehistoric man, especially in the Périgord, but the earliest attested inhabitants in the south-west were the Aquitani.  Although a number of different languages and dialects were in use in the area during ancient times, it is most likely that the prevailing language of Aquitaine during the late pre-historic to Roman period was an early form of the Basque language as various Aquitanian names recorded by the Romans are still currently readable as Basque.

Nouvelle – Aquitaine

The Nouvelle – Aquitaine name was voted on by a large majority of the regional governers. The name is thought to make sense regionally and historically since ‘Aquitaine’ is already well known as an area. It is thought to reflect the important part that water plays in the region; from its border with the Atlantic to it’s important rivers, lakes and marais area.  The ‘New’ part (nouvelle) signifies renewal, dynamisme and ambition. It is also added to prevent the Poitou Charente and Limousin from feeling left out. It is hoped that all departments will retain their identities and that their diversity is guarded. Many feel this may not be the case since we will now be governed by Bordeaux rather than Poitiers – it will make little difference we think, to us here in the countryside, equally distant from both.

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It is unlikely the change will make much difference to our holiday makers either. Families will still go on holiday to the ‘Dordogne’, ‘Landes’ and of course our own ‘Charente – Maritime’ all of which are part of ‘Nouvelle – Aquitaine’

It is a diverse and beautiful part of France – the ‘greater south west’ with sunshine and skiing; beaches and mountains; countryside and beaches; cities and villages; the most important vineyards in the world, the best wines in the world, a rich history and wonderful, friendly inhabitants. Chris and I couldn’t wish to live in a more beautiful part of the world.

To share our love of ‘Nouvelle – Aquitaine’ come and stay with us at one of our holiday cottages and villas. Find out more here

Content by Wendy Blakeman

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Coolongalook adventure park, Royan

On Tuesday it was Thomas’ 11th birthday and he requested a day at a climbing adventure park. We have previously been to one at Aytré near La Rochelle but had heard about Coolongalook parc and thought we’d give it a go .

Coolongalook adventure park, Royan

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It’s just under an hours drive to Coolongalook parc from our family holiday cottages here in the Charente Maritime and well worth the trip. We booked in advance as it was recommended but the day we went was very quiet and for the first hour or so we were the only family there which was great !

The main attraction of the park is the climbing. You get fitted into a climbing harness and then given instruction on how the system works.The adult and some of the teen courses are not for the faint hearted, if you don’t like heights it may not be the day out for you.

 

Koala continuous belay system

At the previous parcs we had been to there was an element of risk with the climbing as you had to hook and un hook the carabinas at various points along each climb and unless you carefully followed the instruction of always being hooked on with at least one at any time there was always the possibililty of being 3m (or more for older kids and adults) above ground and not being hooked onto anything. At Coolongalook parc they have the ‘Koala continuous belay system’ where you hook on at the beginning and cannot remove the hook until you are safely on the ground again – far safer when you have adventurous kids to supervise.

12m above ground

12m above ground

There are 4 childrens courses suitable for those of 4 years and a meter tall (there are also some non harness courses for even littler ones; then another two courses for tweens of 1m30 or above and a further 2 courses for the adults. We had 6 courses of increasing difficulty to choose from having purchased the Junior ticket and Chris and I have to admit the last two were far too challenging for us !! Thomas and Benjamin managed them but at 12m above the ground and freely swinging blocks to cross it was tough going and both physically and mentally challenging – Thomas loved it !!

Skyfall

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There are loads of zip wires included in courses – the final one is 250m long and starts at 13m above the ground. For adults there is also a 15m free fall jump called skyfall (we didn’t do that one !!) included in the adult ticket

We spent around 2hrs30 completing the 6 courses and although you have unlimited time to do them all again we were shattered and ready for an ice cream at the café. The café does only sell ice creams, soft drinks, chocolate bars and crisps though, so take a picnic with you as there’s no where to buy lunch. There are picnic tables located all around the park and it’s a lovely woodland setting.

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TOP TIPS

  • take a picnic, water and snacks
  •  mossie repellant  is essential
  • go early to avoid the crowds

Laser Battle

The park also has a small area set aside for a laser battle in the woods. We purchased an adventure pass which includes the unlimited climbing, one game of laser battle (20mins) and the ‘man vs wild’ orienteering  course which takes about an hour. Individually we personally did not think the laser battle (10€ pp) and man vs wild course (6€ pp) were worth their individual prices but we were happy with the value for money of the adventure pass which included them.

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For the laser battle you are given a laser gun each and put into teams, you then have 20 mins to shoot each other. It’s a bit hit and miss as the only target that registers is on the gun (unlike indoor laser games where you get a jacket with various targets over the body) Benjamin loved it, Thomas got fed up as it was hard to target people – even still, I came last !

Man vs Wild

At 6€ pp this would be a bit disappointing on it’s own and really should be included when purchasing a climbing pass in our opinion. However we did enjoy it. We were given a list of 12 questions and a compass. We had to pretend we were on a camping trip and various situations arise at each marker which you have to choose the correct response (eg you have very little water left, what do you do a, drink it all at once because you are thirst; b, ration it throughout the day; c, drink only at night ) You mark down your answer then have to use the compass to find the next marker and question.

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We were quite tired and didn’t think we’d actually follow through the whole course but actually it kept our interest as the woodland was quite thick, the trails quite small and climbing over fallen down trees etc made us feel as though we really were in the wild far from anywhere. We finished the whole course and checked our answers at the end (we got over half wrong so probably would of died !!)

 

 

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We had a great day out, we survived with a few aching muscles, the kids loved it and we’d highly recommend giving Coolongalook parc , Royan a go. When staying at our family holiday cottages in the Charente Maritime, France we can reserve your place for you. Visit their web site here for full details of opening times and prices. For more information about our child friendly holiday cottages visit our web site here .For more information on all our cottages, gites and villas visit our web site here

Content by Wendy Blakeman

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K-bane restaurant – seafood lovers heaven, Ile d’Oleron

Leave early !!

We rarely have the time to visit the coast in summer but since last weekend was our wedding anniversary , Chris fancied some Gillardeau oysters so we cleared our schedules for the Sunday and headed out for the Ile d’Oleron where Gillardeau has its oyster beds, shop and 24hr oyster vending machine !

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We had planned to spend an hour or so on the beach before some lunch and before it got too busy but unfortunately we didn’t get going until 11am and should of known better We ended up in a 40 minute traffic jam – at this time of year the coast is a nightmare and we vowed never to attempt the journey again so ‘late’ in the day ! Top tip for summer excursions to the coast LEAVE EARLY !!

K-Bane restaurant

By the time we escaped the jam it was lunchtime. We had heard of a seafood place just after the bridge that is famous for it’s mussels ‘eglade’ (or eclade as it’s known on the mainland) Jean – Patrick, the owner and ‘ostréiculteur’ (oyster harvester) has been selling his oysters to the Paris restaurants for 20 years but wanted to get back to his roots and conserve his links to his original customers on the Island so opened a restaurant in a cabin just across the Ile d’Oleron bridge and next to his oyster beds; the  ‘K-bane’ seafood restaurant was born.

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Eglade or Eclade ?

The Ile d’Oleron is also famous for it’s mussels as well as it’s oysters and a well known Oleron recipe is the ‘Eglade’ . This consists of a tray of mussels standing upright and covered with pine needles from the many pine forests on the island. These are then set alight and the mussels are cooked in the heat and take on a smokey flavour. It’s quite a spectacle to watch and the preparation for each plate takes around half an hour so must be ordered in advance. We were a little confused at first as to the correct name as we had seen signs for both Eclade and Eglade – was it two different recipes ? Apparently not – Eglade is the ‘correct’ name originating on the Ile d’Oleron; Eclade is what the ‘mainlanders’ call it !

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The restaurant is a seafood lovers heaven – it’s for purists – nothing other than oysters, mussels, crab, lobster, bulot, langoustine and prawns on the menu. All dishes are served with sauteed potatoes and the desserts are simple (ice cream, galette charentaise and iles flottantes) We had hoped to try the famous Eglade but the dish has to be ordered in advance, so we had to content ourselves with oysters, fish soup, moules marinier and lobster !

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We had a delicious meal and thought the quality, freshness and value were all excellent, we’d highly recommend the K-bane and will definitely be returning.

That day was quite an oyster fest as on the return we picked up the Gillardeau oysters we had come for and enjoyed those with a few bottles of delicious white wine back at home.

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The service at K-bane was excellent, very friendly and efficient too. The restaurant is open from Easter to the end of September. Full details and opening times can be on their web site  here .When staying at any of our family holiday cottages here in the Charente Maritime we can organise the Eglade experience for you. We shall definitely be going again, but this time we shall leave much earlier to avoid the traffic and also we shall reserve our ‘Eglade’.

For details of all our properties here in the Charente Maritime region of south west France visit us at www.french-gites-and-villas.com

Content by Wendy Blakeman

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Fishing with kids at Migré

Fishing with the kids

We just discovered another great place ! One of our families recently asked where he could take his son fishing. They had no rods or tackle and wern’t really into fishing, but fancied having a go. A friend had mentioned a place about 30 mins from our family holiday cottages where you could just go for a full or half day and the river was stocked with trout several times a day – it was pretty much guaranteed you’d catch something ! They hire out the rods and bait so you don’t need expensive equipment so it’s perfect for families with kids who just want to try it out. I got the details and sent them on their way. They came back with 3 trout !

This Sunday I took the boys there to check it out and wasn’t disappointed , we also came back with 3 trout  !

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My father loved fishing but rarely had the time but when he fell ill he made time with the boys and they loved helping him tie the flies and land the carp. One of their last memories of him was catching a huge carp together at a local pond a few weeks before he died. They were keen to go fishing again.

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Les Sources du Moulin

Les Sources du Moulin is in Migré a 30 minute drive from La Grange du Moulin and Les Vallaies. There is a restaurant which offers a lunch menu at 12€50 and is reported to be excellent . We took a picnic as did many of the fishermen. In the typical French way, they had sunbeds, chairs, tables, wine and even a fondue in the spot next to us whilst their 5 rods sat waiting for the fish to bite. We had a plastic bag to sit on and a bottle of water.

We had no equipment and had no idea what we were doing but the rods (long bamboo sticks) with line, hook and float were provided for a 10€ deposit; we paid extra for maggots and didn’t pay the fishing fee of 5€ per child until later in the afternoon when the river was re stocked, so we could of fished for free – if we had we wouldn’t of caught anything though ! (not through lack of fish, just lack of expertise – our neighbours despite sleeping off the lunch time wine on their sunbeds seemed to catch plenty !)

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We want fish !!

We arrived at 1pm and were told the trout were released at 3pm so we had a 2 hour wait although we remained hopeful of catching something before then – everyone around us seemed to be landing fish (and an eel) every few minutes !  3 o’ clock came and went and despite our neighbours shouting ‘we want the fish’ (in French) he didn’t turn up until 3.20pm (apparently it’s all dependent on how busy the restaurant is that day)

We had to wait until then as everyone was saying how we need to be quick landing the fish and putting new maggots back on the hook – we were getting very excited ! At long last the owner started up his tractor and came along the track, scooping net fulls of trout into the river for each group. We had at least 5 placed right in front of our hooks but they all swam down to the 3m50 depths below and ignored our wriggling maggots.

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Nibbles and success at last

However after about 5 minutes Benjamin got a nibble or two, his float went down but he pulled up too quickly (apparently) and the hook was empty of maggots and trout when it surfaced. This happened at least 3 times – we blame the hook, it must of been blunt !! Thomas on the other hand had a sharp hook and he landed a whopper within 10 minutes of the trout being released (this was after 2hrs 30 of sitting on the bank holding a bamboo stick) He was thrilled (of course) and wants to go again (of course !) Benjamins not so keen.

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Team ‘fishing’ spirit

It’s very much a team spirit and all the neighbours helped us – we would of been lost without the kind lady next to us removing the hook from the poor fishes mouth or the man on the other side getting the line untangled from the tree branch. It was very much an ‘experience’ for me and fun in an odd kind of way. I doubt any of us will become members of  the Prince Albert fishing club (or its French equivalent) – although I was, as a child thanks to my Dad. We enjoyed the ice creams and will definitely try the restaurant at some point. If we fish again we will go more prepared (something other than a bag to sit on will be a minimum) but we came home with 3 trout on barbecue night and they were delicious (thank you ‘you tube’ for the gutting video )

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Three trout – how ?

Well the family next to us caught 19 and felt sorry for the boys, so gave us 2 of theirs so we could come back home and proclaim huge success, they were all delicious. It was fun and a great experience for anyone who’s not fished before. The owner recommended coming in the morning when it’s cooler (it was 34c in the shade that afternoon) and just before the fish are released at 9am….

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www.moulindemigre.com ,  20 route du moulin 17330 Migré ,   +33 546240392

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Les Gours plan d’eau – swimming lake with beach

After 20 years here we are still discovering new places. On Sunday we were at one of our stand alone villas – Villa Fontaine in the rural French hilltop village of Fontaine Chalendray so after our mornings work we thought we would check out a swimming lake a friend had told us about.

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Just 10 minutes drive away (and 30 mins from our La Grange du Moulin and Les Vallaies holiday cottages) Les Gours plan d’eau is in the middle of no where and you can’t even see the lake from the road so you’d never come across it by accident; there is a small sign but if you blinked you’d miss it, so you definitely need directions to get there. Consequently it’s not busy – just those ‘in the know’ have reserved tables in the restaurant.

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We arrived at lunchtime so were pleased to find the restaurant serving steak frites for just 9€50 including an ice cream for dessert. They also offer a full menu of tomatoe salad, paté or melon followed by steak frite (a very nice piece of faut filet and a huge platter of homemade chips), cheese, ice cream cone, caraf of wine, water and bread – all for 13€50; no wonder most tables were reserved. Apparently this menu is only offered on a Sunday but the bar is open throughout the week offering drinks and snacks such as waffles. It’s very simply done so keeps the costs low – very French actually – paper table cloth, thin plastic plates and cups and the food served on platters for you to help yourselves.

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After lunch we headed across the lane to the lake. It’s a beautiful situation – surrounded by mature trees giving lots of shade. Lots of benches and lots of space. There’s a good sized man made beach with lovely soft sand which leads down to the paddling and swimming areas. The paddling area is a maximum 80cm depth and has a rope to define the area, as does the swimming area which goes from 80cm to 3m50. The swimming area is surveyed by a life guard from 2pm until 6pm most days during the summer holidays. The rest of the lake is reserved for fishing.

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A nice play area is provided too with swings, slide and a see saw.

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We had a lovely few hours, the children didn’t come out of the lake until it was time to leave, they had so much fun. We highly recommend it as an alternative to going to the beach for the day – it’s much closer and there’s no low tide !

Find out more about all our family holiday cottages here in the Charente Maritime region of France on our web sites

www.grangedumoulin.com

www.lesvallaies.com

www.french-gites-and-villas.com

www.childfriendlygites.com

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Jean Balluet – the alternative Cognac tour

Each week at our barbecues I bring out my now famous ‘chocolate chip cookie’ dessert and Chris brings down a frosty bottle of ‘Tempete de la mer’ (stormy sea) This delicious liqueur drips into your glass and then glides down your throat with the ease of melted chocolate and just as gorgeous. Its sweet and chilled with a slight ‘petillance’ and 30% alcohol,so its pretty lethal !

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The cries of ‘wow’ and ‘that’s delicious’ are heard every week and inevitably at least one family will make the 30 minute drive a day or so later to stock up on this ‘sparkling Cognac’ as we call it, to take home with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cognac houses have never heard of it. It can only be found exclusively from Jean Balluet, the producer in Neuvicq le chateau, east of Saint Jean d’Angely.

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You can visit the Chateau too

Since many of our guests at our family holiday cottages visit Balluets, we rarely make the journey ourselves these days, we just ask them to buy a few bottles for us when they go, however last week we were completely out and since we were on our way back from Angouleme we popped in. This time our eldest son was with us. He hears the stories every week about Jean Balluet and his ‘alternative Cognac tour’ but has never been himself . It’s been about 15 years since we ourselves have done his tour around the distillery – we usually just pop in buy what we need and leave; but today we had some spare time and decided it was time Benjamin had the pleasure.

You would need to know where it was to find it, blink and you’d miss it. No big sign (I don’t think there’s any sign) and not much to look at. A few stainless steel tanks at the back, but those can be found all over the area, as many farmers produce wine to sell to the large Cognac houses to distill since we are in the fin bois region of Cognac vineyards. 2016-06-21 11.20.10 2016-06-21 11.20.45

Jean wasn’t there that day, it was Arlette, a neighbour and friend of Jeans who took us on the tour. (probably a good thing as Jean is quite the comedian but his jokes are a bit on the rude side – our 13 yr old would die of embarrassment !)
She starts the tour by getting you to look in the mirrors which are straight from the fairground – making you fat or thin or very short (they don’t do that on the Hennessy tour !)

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Arlette then locks the front door and takes you passed rows of barrels in a dark passage to where you have the tasting session. We passed by the next part as Benjamin was with us and it was only 11am ! This tasting of the Balluet Cognac and Pineau is legendary. You get to taste everything and you get huge glasses of the amber liquids – make sure you have a dedicated driver !!!

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The Cognac barrel is next – you get to take a big sniff and as you do Arlette blows through another hole so you get blown away by the Cognac fumes up your nostrils – certainly clears the airways (I always remember Jean asking for the lady with the largest chest and lowest cut top to bend down to the barrel for this trick !)

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You get to see where the grapes come into the distillery and the grapes are separated from the stalks in the grappoir. You are shown the maceration and storage tanks, the swan neck copper still and finally row upon row of barrels filled with eau de vie, maturing and waiting to be blended into Cognac. You are shown the whole process from beginning to end . This isn’t the glossy, slick tour of the famous Cognac houses – it’s the ‘real’ tour of a real working distillery. The floors are sticky, cobwebs hang in every nook and cranny, you bend to walk under pipes and past stainless steel tanks.

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La ‘piece de resistance’ is the tower ! Four flights up a dark, wooden staircase to a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. 15 years ago it was just the view, now there is a big orientation map and two telescopes.

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Our son felt very privileged to of done the Jean Balluet tour that he had heard so much about; we are privileged to have such an excellent local Cognac producer who thinks outside the box and has developed new products to attract new business. Unfortunately they had run out of sparkling Cognac until the 10th July, so we shall be going back very soon. We did however buy some of his sparkling Pineau which is just as delicious (and slightly less deadly) the problem is it was so delicious we went through two bottles before the barbecue even got going !

To make a day of it, you should also visit the Siecq winery just a few minutes away. No tour but you can have a tasting of all they produce. We have a chilled bottle of their Sauvignon for our guests when they first arrive and use their Pinot noir on our Taste du Terroir evenings. They also do a superb sparkling wine (champagne method) for just 6€ so well worth a visit.

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If you have travelled to us in the car rather than flying you can also fill up plastic bottles of your own with their vrac wine sold by weight .

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In fact trying and buying local wines, Pineau and Cognac and being able to take some home with you is one of the main reasons we recommend driving to us here in the Charente Maritime ! For more information about our family holiday cottages visit our web sites

www.grangedumoulin.com

www.lesvallaies.com

www.french-gites-and-villas.com

Content by Wendy Blakeman

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Ten essential things to pack when travelling to France

Essential things to pack – well many of these things will seem obvious but in the last 20 years we have experienced families who have forgotten at least one of these things – new baby passport is the most common ! But as well as remembering to take them away – don’t forget to bring them back home too !

1, Current passport

– check all passports are in date at least 3 months before travelling to give time to renew if necessary. Don’t forget new baby needs a passport too.
To renew or apply for a uk passport go to www.gov.uk/apply-renew-passport

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2, Tickets

– whether this be a printed email ticket, a barcode on your phone or just a reservation number its easy to forget these days as few people receive ‘old fashioned tickets’ but you’ll definitely need something ! Many of the cheap airlines require you to check in online and print boarding passes before arriving at the airport, so make sure you check your airlines requirements before getting to the airport to avoid extra costs

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3, EHIC card

– European Health Insurance card . This will cover 100% of emergency treatment and 70% of other treatment when in France . Apply free from the www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/Healthcareabroad/EHIC/ there is no fee so stay away from web sites that charge

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4, Driving papers

– if hiring a car you’ll need your passport, details of your car hire reservation and your current drivers licence including the paper part for those who still have one, if taking your own car to France you must have a current drivers licence, current car insurance document, GB sticker, warning triangle and headlamps must be adjusted, a breathalyser is ‘compulsory’ but you cannot be fined (at present) for not having one . For full information on other European countries, motorcycle requirements and more in depth information about driving in France visit drive-france.com web site

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5, Travel insurance

– if you have taken out travel insurance (highly recommended) remember to bring your contract number and contact information for emergencies

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6, Accommodation details

– an address, a contact number and name and directions, you’d be surprised how many people have no idea where they are meant to be staying and end up in all sorts of places ! Don’t completely rely on the sat nav. There are many villages with the same name, roads that have changed, new one way systems – have a back up.

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7, Essential prescribed Medication

– such as inhalers, birth control, or any pre existing medical conditions. Bring prescriptions with you, so if you lose what you need, it can easily be replaced. Pharmacies will often honour a European prescription.

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8, Mobile phone

  • with charger and travel adapter and roaming set up with your service provider

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9, Clothes !

  • check out the forecast before you leave to help you pack. Remember it will always be easier and cheaper to pick up extra t-shirts and shorts on holiday if needed than jeans and fleeces

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10, Credit card

– if you forget everything else or disaster strikes at least you can buy what you need with your card. Maybe have a few euros available too, not essential but may come in handy for an emergency coffee or pay loo !

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MAKE A LIST, TICK IT OFF, ENJOY YOUR HOLIDAY !!

content by Wendy Blakeman

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20 years in France

This weekend (15th May) marks a very special anniversary for Chris and I. Twenty years ago we filled a 7ton truck with all our posessions and hopped on the Portsmouth to St Malo ferry to live in France .

We’d been planning for about a year. The previous June we were staying here on holiday in my parents holiday home, we’d been coming for a few years. Chris first came down in 1988 with my brother to help my Dad finish renovating his first French cottage (and have a boys holiday drinking wine and soaking up the sun) – a curies cottage opposite the 12th century church in the village of Fontaine Chalendray about 20 mins drive from here. (Chris and I have been together quite a while, we met in 1983 when I was just 16)

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Then

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Now

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My parents had bought the property here in France, in 1985. My father was a workaholic and loved to build . He had taken early retirement and needed something to fill his time (he wasn’t a builder he had been chief accountant for the post office but built houses in his spare time; at that point he’d already self built at least 8 houses in the Uk – on weekends and evenings !)

A friend had told him that property in France was cheap and there wern’t the same restrictions on self building as in Spain where they had a villa and you had to use Spanish builders rather than doing it yourself . This area seemed a logical place – it was cheap as few people in those days had heard of the Charente Maritime. Most Brits bought in Brittany or wizzed through on the motorway down to the Dordogne. It was also where he often stopped on his long drive from Cheshire to the Costa Blanca.

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The cottage garden after renovation. The mural on the wall was painted by artist and lifelong friend of my father, Jeff Littlejones. It is a picture of the original chateau that stood on the hill where the village of Fontaine Chalendray is now.

My parents bought the cottage and attached stone barn for £4000 ! The cottage was basically habitable with a fosse, toilet and cold water tap, my father just made it really habitable with hot and cold running water, a fitted kitchen and a modern bathroom. He was looking forward to spending time here, slowly renovating the barn next door and enjoying the way of life, however that didn’t happen….

One sunny day there was a knock at the door. A french man from Remy Martin Cognac house. The company had run a competition in the UK to promote Rémy Martin. First prize was a house in Cognac country. The competition had run and the winner was waiting for her keys. The problem was they didn’t have a house to give her. They had underestimated the lack of truly habitable houses for sale in the area. There was no ‘housing market’ in the Charente Maritime. There was in Cognac itself but the prices were too high for the company – they’d banked on a cheap country side cottage. After asking around they had been pointed in the direction of my fathers house who everyone in the village knew had all the ‘mod cons’ including a satellite dish which the locals had never seen the like of before .

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One of the cottages my father bought with the proceeds. We still have this house which dates from 1796. We are very slowly renovating it.

They offered my father £25,000 for just the cottage (they didn’t want the barn) – it didn’t take many of his accountancy skills to work out he should sell, and his desire to be busy meant he should buy another property to do up.

To cut quite a long story a little shorter he bought, renovated and sold another 3 stone barns over the next few years until he eventually bought the barns here in Courgeon – La Grange du Moulin was born !

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My father enjoying his retirement – this is now Fleurie and Peche cottages at La Grange du Moulin

We started coming on holiday here around 1990 – a cheap holiday for us staying in my parents holiday home. We loved the peace and quiet, in those days, what we now call the main road was a quiet lane where perhaps a tractor or two would pass during the day.

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Helping Mum and Dad with the terracing around the pool at La Grange du Moulin

We helped my Dad with building the pool, building some stone walls and painting spiral staircases – a real change from our busy lives both working in the UK. The stone barns, he had converted into 6 individual cottages. When we asked what he intended, he really had no idea – he just loved building, repairing roofs, knocking holes in walls for windows, he was addicted !

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Chris and my brother Richard helping with building the pool the year before we moved here

 

It was our suggestion that perhaps they might make good holiday rental properties – he bit our hands off and wanted us to stay and get busy letting them out ! We were slightly more cautious, had a think (for about 5 minutes) and agreed we would move down the following year.

And that was that – we handed in our notice, saved a bit of money, got a tenant for our house in Tunbridge wells and hopped on the ferry with all our worldly posessions with no research, no long term, no help from ‘ house in the sun ‘  just lots of excitement and a few bookings for the summer. We appreciate how lucky we were to be able to do this without risking anything. We thought maybe a few years in France then if it doesn’t work out we’d just return to the uk…. 20 years later we are still here, 2 kids and a thriving business.

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Getting the garden ready after the fosses had been installed

It’s not all been plain sailing of course we’ve got dozens of stories that we say will go in ‘our book’ of interesting guests (changing the names of course !) and the early days were hard going, having a much reduced income, being self employed and no certainty that we’d have any income the next year, as well as having no monthly salary but just a  lump sum from payments generally in May and June that you have to make last for the whole year. Plus our tenant in the UK had to leave, we had trouble finding someone else so we had to sell as we couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage on our income here. We loved living in rural France, being masters of our own destiny and not having to get up at the same time everyday and commute to work – the benefits far outweighed the difficulties.

Chris digging a trench for the drains at the back of Peche cottage in our first year

Chris digging a trench for the drains at the back of Peche cottage in our first year

Our first summer went reasonably well and once September came we were looking forward to a winter of relaxing – my father had different ideas. He couldn’t see us lazing around and he’d just recently purchased yet another stone barn in the next village. We spent that winter learning how to wire two way switches, solder copper pipes and fit a bathroom, lay wooden floors and repair rotten roofs. He even put the pressure on by insisting we advertise the cottages as holiday lets for the summer – so we had 8 months to convert a barn with dirt floors and no electric or water into a comfortable holiday home – never having put up so much as a shelf before ! We did it of course, with my Dads help and instruction and it was a very self satisfied feeling we had when we showed in our first guests that following summer.

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The Galanchat cottage we renovated in our first winter. Then sold to some regular guests of ours and now belongs to a French family.

The following winter my brother got into the family business by purchasing a run down farm in the village of Gibourne. At the time he lived in Hong Kong, so paid us to renovate it for him (now we were so experienced !) Over the next couple of years we renovated another three barns into holiday homes – oh yes, and built a pool too. La Vendange was born ! This was all done in the winter time, with our summers spent running (and cleaning) all these holiday homes. It was pretty hectic.

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One of the cottages we renovated at La Vendange for my brother

For the first 10 years we just offered holiday accommodation to anyone and everyone. We might have a family with a baby and toddler in one cottage, a group of adults in another and a family with teenagers in the third. We had barbecues but you paid and we would provide and cook everything, also providing free flowing wine – we’d be on the go all day until often 3am serving wine. We offered a breakfast service on your first morning and a supper service on the first evening too. Our vine walks lasted 4 or 5 hrs and took in not only Eric Cartauds winery with a tasting but a local potter too.

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Some guests enjoying our barbecue food in the early days

When Benjamin came along in 2003 and Thomas in 2005 we just couldn’t do the things we had before so things evolved. We told one of our regular families we were stopping the barbecues as we could no longer put in the same hours as before – they were horrified, it was one of the highlights of their holidays. They suggested that families supply their own food and wine and we just tell them when and where – it was a great success and a lot less work for us.

Barbecues now

Barbecues now

We stopped the breakfasts and suppers but started doing Teddy bear picnics when we had lots of little children staying. This was a huge success too and we started thinking what else we could provide for young families like our own.

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We soon realised that catering to young families was a great market. Pre schoolers come in June and September – a time when we were often very quiet if not empty. With the arrival of the cheap airline routes being opened up, more young families were travelling further afield as it was easier than a long car journey which was the only real option before. We started offering more equipment – not just a cot and a high chair but a steriliser, potty, booster seats, plastic crockery etc. It was all very much appreciated and families started coming year after year because they said there was no where else like it and it was so easy for them, it made their holiday so much more relaxing.

We started focussing our publicity in areas where young families would be looking. In the early days we only advertised in Chez Nous, a glossy brochure and it worked for us, but then the company was taken over and it became less and less effective in advertising to our core market. We started looking at other companies but no one at the time really offered what we were after so we started our own web site.

Initially all reservations were done by phone, few people had email. We had a paper brochure we would send out to interested families. They would post back a booking form and a cheque and we would post back confirmation of their booking. These days everythings online from completing the booking form to making the payment and we rarely actually ‘speak’ to any of our families before they arrive, saying that with the ease of email we tend to have much more communication.

We are proudly a Mumsnet best holiday destination

We are proudly a Mumsnet best holiday destination

I had great fun developing the web site how to add photos and change the colours. Now I need to know about html, seo and google analytics to stay even close to the top of our game. Most of our reservations now come not through advertising but through google searches for our key search terms like ‘child friendly’ . It’s constantly developing and changing with the focus now being on independent reviews like on trip advisor and Mumsnet being a top priority to internet savvy families. I’m certainly no expert and no doubt could pay someone to do these things far better for me , but I enjoy doing it (and havn’t been self employed for 20 years to start paying other people to do my job for me) I try to stay reasonably up to date and have a strong Google presence (just search Wendy Blakeman) and try to stay active on facebook and twitter.

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We now spend our winters building new properties to let, not as holiday homes but as permanent rentals, we have one that is finished and let, a second that is nearly finished and a piece of land waiting for me to do the plans. I also have Chris building me a lovely extension to our house, so we are still pretty busy. We also have a couple of properties that are suitable for families other than those with young children – perhaps with teens or just groups of adults. Find out more here

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Our Fontaine villa that Chris built

Twenty years ago today we started on a great life experience. We had an amazing opportunity thanks to our family and have hopefully done them proud developing the business into what it is today. We have certainly enjoyed it and will certainly be continuing, at least for the next few years.

Thank you to all the families who have stayed with us over the last 20 years.

Watch out for the book – you may see yourself in it !!

 

Content by Wendy Blakeman

 

 

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Brittany ferry OFFER

All our families will receive a 20% discount code for Brittany ferry crossings when they book with us. This offer is often increased to 25% in October by Brittany ferries, making your family friendly holiday to France even cheaper. Keep an eye on our facebook page for all our offers, deals and late availability.

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If you have booked elsewhere – don’t despair, you can still take advantage of this great offer by liking us on facebook, following us on twitter or adding us to your circles on google+ . 

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Once you have added us just email us wendy@childfriendlygites.com to get the code and then follow the steps below

1, Go to www.holidayfrancedirect.co.uk

 

2, Click on the orange ‘book your ferry travel’ button at the bottom right

3, Enter your travel details

4, Enter the code we give you as a holidaymaker

This will then automatically calculate the cost of your travel with the discount. Discount applies to the crossing only, not cabins/seats.

 

Brittany ferries travel from Plymouth, Poole and Dorset in the UK to Le Harvre, Caen, Cherbourg, St Malo and Roscoff in France all of which are a reasonable travel distance to our family friendly holiday cottages here in the Charente Maritime region of France.

When travelling to our child friendly gites – distance versus cost is always a consideration. The www.autoroutes.fr web site has useful information on your journey including estimated petrol and toll costs. Here is a rough guide

St Malo 385km 4hr30 toll 13€ fuel 38€

Caen 475km 5hr toll 46€ fuel 45€

Roscoff 523km 6hr15 toll 13€ fuel 51€

Le Havre 530km 5hr45 toll 54€ fuel 51€

Cherbourg 533km 6hr15 toll 13€ fuel 53€

For more information on all our family holiday cottages in the Charente Maritime, France visit our web sites

grangedumoulin.com

lesvallaies.com

french-gites-and-villas.com

Content by Wendy Blakeman

 

 

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